Farm Horizons, June 2014

Horse virus interrupts the daily lives of horse owners in MN

Jennifer Kotila

In early March, an outbreak of the equine herpesvirus 1 (EHV-1) in Minnesota had horse-owners on high alert, especially those who owned barrel or game horses and had been to a recent event. A total of seven horses in Minnesota were eventually confirmed to have the virus, which is highly contagious and can cause neurological impairments from which a horse may never recover, according to the Minnesota Board of Animal Health.

“It’s one of those things you can’t predict,” said Dassel horse owner Keri Wesley. “In the past, it has been at one facility and was able to be contained. But this time, it wasn’t, which is why it was so newsworthy.”

EHV-1 has four clinical presentations: neurological disease, respiratory disease, neonatal death, and abortion, according to the University of Minnesota Center for Animal Health and Food Safety. The EHV-1 outbreak that affected horses in Minnesota beginning in early March was neurological, leading to equine herpesvirus myeloencephalopathy. “It’s just sad that it is the neurological kind we were dealing with, because that is the most serious,” Wesley said.

Although most commonly spread by direct horse-to-horse contact, the virus can also be indirectly spread through contact with physical objects, such as tack, grooming equipment, and buckets that have been contaminated with the virus.Because of the outbreak, veterinarians recommended travel restrictions for two to three weeks following the last clinical case, which was confirmed March 29 in Minnesota in Wright County – the second confirmed case in that county. Other counties with confirmed cases in Minnesota include Hennepin, Chisago, Dakota, and Freeborn.

Wesley was extremely concerned about the outbreak. Having the virus confirmed in Minnesota, in Wright County, and affecting mostly barrel and game horses hit a little too close to home for the family that owns four horses; Katie is a Pony of the Americas that participates in barrel racing and was due to have her foal, Twilight (born May 7); Dandy is an Appaloosa used mostly for trail riding at this time; and, Bullseye is a Shetland pony that also participates in shows.

Wesley was in the process of breeding Dandy at the time of the outbreak, and decided to put it off for a month due to the infectious nature of EHV-1. The veterinarian also made house visits to check on Katie and the foal while the travel restrictions were in affect. Many Minnesota and Wisconsin horse shows were canceled, and the Minnesota Horse Expo told owners to keep horses at home.

A fever is the first sign that a horse may be infected with EHV-1, followed by coughing and nasal discharge. An affected horse may abort, usually in late pregnancy, but sometimes as early as four months with no warning signs. Finally, a horse may show signs of neurologic disease that includes hind-end weakness and incoordination, leaning against walls or fences to maintain balance, problems with urination, and the inability to stand.

A horse that gets EHV-1 that leads to equine herpesvirus myeloencephalopathy is unlikely to recover fully from the virus, noted Wesley. With the chance that a horse may not recover fully, and the cost to treat a horse with neurologic symptoms being so great, many owners choose to euthanize a horse that becomes infected with the virus. “It’s a hard decision for any horse owner,” Wesley said.

Horses with the virus are offered supportive care and anti-inflammatory drugs; those with the neurologic form are also given antiviral medications. If a horse is to recover at all, and has lost its ability to stand, it has to be at a facility with a sling to hold it up. “If a horse can’t get up, it will be crushed under its own weight,” Wesley said. “Or they may panic, and are more likely to hurt themselves (because of the inability to control their legs).”

Despite the concerns Wesley and other horse owners may have about EHV-1, it has been more than two weeks since the last confirmed case in Minnesota and horse owners are ready to get out and about with their horses again. The Dassel Saddle Club chose to hold its WSCA Saddle Show the weekend of May 17. “We are not sure how many will show up,” Wesley said.

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